Asa-El's Israel: Thoughts in a Jerusalem library

The Post's most veteran columnist on what's making the headlines and what's not.

November 2, 2006 11:32
3 minute read.
amotz asa el 88

amotz asa el 88. (photo credit: )


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  • Amotz Asa-El's bio
  • Middle Israel: Wrong man for president

    Thoughts in a Jerusalem library

    The other day I entered the Yad Ben-Zvi Library where I often write and saw a familiar face, former president Yitzhak Navon, writing diligently and sitting modestly among the rest of the library's usual crowd, a random collection of researchers, teachers, students, journalists and tour guides. Few sights could be more Jerusalemite than this, I thought. True Jerusalemites are library animals. They can't help entering one when passing by it, sometimes even if it's in a language they can't read. And once inside a library, or a good book store, pulling them away from it can be as challenging as disconnecting Winnie the Pooh from a honey jar. At the Bet-Ha'am Public Library, a cubic, white structure that still operates on downtown Jerusalem's Bezalel Street, we first put to work the reading skills we acquired a mere few months earlier, at the nearby Le-Dugma elementary school. There we gulped one after another of such classic Israeli children's books as Tukides, Dani-Din, Chippopo and Kofiko - whose heroes were, respectively, a talking bird, an invisible boy, a talking monkey who traveled the world and a talking monkey from Petah Tikva - as well as translations like Enid Blyton's The Secret Seven, a series whose protagonists bore names like George, Peter, Janet, Jack, Collin and Suzy, and whose junior-detective adventures involved barns, tree houses, stolen cars, snow fields and tea-and-cookie breaks, all of which could hardly be more distant from the border town of academics, bureaucrats and soldiers where we were being raised. As a kid, that modest library's solitude, cleanliness, variety and depth inspired me then at least as much as Harvard's Widener, Columbia's Butler and the Hebrew University's National Library would later. For my friends and me, at a time when computers, Gameboys or Play-stations were science fiction, and when even black-and-white TV had yet to arrive, that library was a universe in its own right, a child's best friend. Proceeding slowly along its stacks, plucking a volume with a peculiar title and sifting through its yellowing, thinning and sometimes scribbled pages was as delicious as a Mediaeval wine cellar's fragrance is for a vintner. Special though it was, and always will be, to those who had in it their first literary tastings, Bet-Ha'am was but one of numerous other Jerusalemite libraries, from the Vatican's next door to the King David Hotel and the Van Leer Institute's which shares a fence with the President's House, to the Rubin Academy's music library, which shared a fence with the prime minister's residence on Smolenskin Street, and from Yad Ben-Tzvi which replaced the previous presidential compound, to Bnei-Brith on Hazanovitch Street - Jerusalem's first modern library. Surely, if even put together these and the rest of Jerusalem's libraries would still dwarf next to where we proceeded by eighth grade, the National Library at Givat Ram, one of the world's largest literary shrines. There, in the reading halls that seemed to us at the time as vast as international airports, we saw at work world-renowned luminaries like Kabbala expert Gerschom Scholem, philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz and historian Jacob Katz, bent over this or that fraying, ancient document alongside a pile of voluminous books, and a multi-lingual assortment of periodicals. In such a setting it was only natural for the President of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, to frequent the Jewish Studies library in the nearby Meiser Building, where he could frequently be seen on Fridays researching the lost tribes of Israel, which were his obsession. Not only was he sitting there unassumingly among undergraduates, he would go there by foot, without bodyguards, from his Rehavia residency, where he would greet guests in a wooden hut, one that is still preserved just outside the library where this blog began. Now, as I am sitting here writing these lines two chairs away from former president Yitzhak Navon, I am compelled to take stock of the sex-lies-and audiotape scandal where our presidency has arrived, and contrast it with the days when our leaders had so much less vainglory and so much more gravitas. Like that moment in 1982, after our Christian allies massacred Palestinians in Lebanon, when the man now drowning in several word-processed pages two chairs away from me confronted Prime Minister Menachem Begin as he demanded, and obtained, the establishment of an independent judicial commission of inquiry. Several months later, when that commission fired then-defense minister Ariel Sharon and then inspired Begin's resignation, it was clear that the Israeli presidency, ordinarily a celebration of pomp, circumstance and irrelevance, had just seen its finest hour; the very inversion of where it now has arrived.

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